Windsor-Essex Black leaders request diversity audit of public school board, citing history of racism

After a longstanding pattern of "anti-Black racism, bias and mistreatment," a group representing more than 50 African, Black and Caribbean leaders and organizations in Windsor-Essex has sent a letter to Ontario's education minister requesting a diversity audit of the local public school board. 

GECDSB says it plans to investigate new anti-Black racism allegations

Leslie McCurdy, acting chair of the Black Council of Windsor-Essex, says many generations of the Black community have experienced racism in the Greater Essex County District School Board in southwestern Ontario. (Jennifer La Grassa/CBC)

After a longstanding pattern of "anti-Black racism, bias and mistreatment," a group representing more than 50 African, Black and Caribbean leaders and organizations in Windsor-Essex has sent a letter to Ontario's education minister requesting a diversity audit and provincial guardianship of the local public school board.

CBC News has a copy of the letter, but has not verified the allegations being made. 

On June 6, the Black Council of Windsor-Essex (BCWE) sent the four-page letter to Education Minister Stephen Lecce that outlines the ways the group alleges the Greater Essex County District School Board (GECDSB) has "devalued, dismissed and disenfranchised" Black staff and students.

The BCWE is asking the ministry to conduct a diversity audit and oversee the board until the issues are properly addressed.

"The people who are in the system right now are not going to work to change the system," said Leslie McCurdy, acting chair of the BCWE.

McCurdy said the BCWE and other Black community organizations have met several times with the school board to help it implement inclusive hiring practices, diverse curriculum and anti-racism training, but says they came away feeling disrespected and frustrated.

"We feel they are going to do as little as they can to try and appease us, but then still maintain their comfort level with everything," she said. "It's not about their comfort level. It's about the changes that need to be done, not just for Black students, but for other students of colour."

Outlined in the letter are 11 issues the BCWE says it is most concerned with. Each point references either an alleged incident of racism at a school, or focuses on the "toxic and dangerous environment" created in schools for students and staff, over the decades.

In an email to CBC News, the Greater Essex County District School Board says it will be launching a third party investigation into some of the allegations made in the letter. (CBC News)

Some of the claims made by the group include: 

  • The presence of police officers in schools "criminalizes Black children" and reinforces the "school to prison pipeline."
  • The lack of a response from the board in regards to a CBC News article in which students of the school system shared their experiences of anti-Black racism. 
  • The "disrespect and anti-Black racism" faced by Black staff, which has led them to "feel that their job is perpetually at risk if they speak up on the inequities in the system." 
  • The number of Black teachers who go on leave due to the "stress of an unyielding, hostile, toxic, dangerous work environment" or are not considered for hire or promotion.

In an email to CBC News on Wednesday, the GECDSB's director of education, Erin Kelly, said, "We believe that every student, and all staff, have the right to learn and work in an environment free of bias, hate, racism and discrimination. The letter we received from the Black Council of Windsor Essex (BCWE) contained situations we were aware of, and alerted us to new ones." 

Kelly said the board had investigated the situations it was aware of, and where there was "concluded wrongdoing, corrective action was taken and consequences incurred." 

She said the board will launch a third-party investigation into the new allegations contained in the letter and is "committed" to following up with the BCWE to discuss possible investigators.

"We know that anti-Black racism is systemic, and continues to exist in our schools, as it does in our society. We will continue our work to identify and eliminate anti-Black racism and all forms of discrimination and hate in our schools," Kelly said in the email. 

Peel school board went through similar review

The BCWE's letter asks the Ministry of Education to carry out a similar process to what was done with the Peel District School Board, whereby the province launched a review of the board in 2019 after allegations surfaced of anti-black racism within its schools.

The review resulted in Lecce issuing more than two dozen directives to the Peel District School Board last year. 

Some directives included having the board regularly report on equity, conduct a diversity audit, develop a learning plan for senior staff on equity and anti-Black racism, track race-based data on suspensions and consider apologizing to the Black community. 

The opening paragraphs of the four-page letter sent to Education Minister Stephen Lecce's office from the Black Council of Windsor-Essex. (Submitted by Leslie McCurdy)

The education minister's office did not confirm receipt of the BCWE's letter to CBC News, but McCurdy told CBC the office responded to her Wednesday and asked her to schedule an appointment with Patrick Case, assistant deputy minister, education equity secretariat.

In an email to CBC News, Lecce's spokesperson, Caitlin Clark, did not say whether the ministry would move forward with an audit of the board. She said the government announced new supports June 7 to better "address policies and practices that have had adverse impacts on Ontario's Black students, as well as support anti-racism work." 

The statement also said the ministry is working on destreaming Grade 9 math curriculum and ending discretionary suspensions for students from kindergarten to Grade 3, as these practices "disproportionately impacted racialized children." 

'Going on for decades'

"My mother was doing this same stuff 50 years ago," McCurdy said. "I read from documents that were written by an organization that she and fellow Windsorites, who were concerned about the public [school] system, had written then."

She said her mother also advocated for a more inclusive curriculum and more Black staff members. 

"This has been going on for decades and it just reached a point of exasperation," said McCurdy.

McCurdy said the group has had similar meetings with the Windsor-Essex Catholic District School Board (WECDSB), but found that board to be more receptive to dealing with the issues.

For example, she said, the Catholic board has put together a survey to collect race-based data and an online resource that addresses Black history and anti-Black racism — two projects on which the BCWE was consulted. 

But, meetings with the public board have not been progressing, said McCurdy. 

At one of the meetings, McCurdy said that after Black community members shared their experiences with racism and the ways they have felt threatened or unsafe in the board's schools, one member of the administration called the stories "heartwarming."

"I'm like, 'heartwarming is not the right word.' Maybe they are impacting upon you and moving you emotionally in some way, but 'heartwarming' is not exactly going to get us the changes that we need," she said. 

"It's not 'heartwarming' when our children are streamed into lower achieving courses. It's not 'heartwarming' when our kids are told that they're not going to go to college anyway or that they're going to end up criminals. None of that is 'heartwarming.' So it's kind of that, that's making us feel like they're just not getting it." 

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.